The obvious thing about Big Sandy and his Fly-Rite Boys is their conviction that the musical world stopped turning in 1957, maybe sooner.
But the essential thing about this Anaheim band, one of the real jewels of American roots music, is not how it recaptures the past, but rather how it enriches the instant.
“Feelin’ Kinda Lucky,” the band’s fifth album since 1989, is a CD-length immersion in Western swing music that takes you back to Tulsa and every other place Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys ever barnstormed. Within that burnished style, however, singer Robert “Big Sandy” Williams and his boys emerge as vibrant musical personalities who make their moments come to life right now.
The pleasures start with Williams’ songwriting--all concise rhyming and grinning wit, so simple that it’s elegant. The songs are mainly about slick guys seeking, winning and losing sharp chicks in old-time honky-tonks. Williams and his band are like fine filmmakers, examining an eternal slice of the human comedy in a specific milieu, and getting the overarching theme and the particular setting just right.
Here’s Williams, a man who enjoys a meal, having a laugh on himself as he plays a jilted Romeo in “The Loser’s Blues.”
I lost my train of thought,
I’m losing sleep.
I even lost my count when I tried counting sheep.
I lost my appetite,
And that’s big news.
Lawdy, now if I could only lose these blues.
Another treat is Williams’ voice, so creamy, flexible and full of humor and good spirit that it’s the aural equivalent of a wink. On past records, he has proved himself a strong ballad singer as well, able to tackle Hank Williams’ weepers with feeling. That’s missing on this strictly upbeat album. “Feelin’ Kinda Lucky” has a very straightforward, underproduced sound that eschews such touches as studio reverb; that’s not a problem, but a whip-cracking producer (like Dave Alvin, who oversaw two previous Big Sandy albums) might have demanded that Williams push harder at times, especially on “Strange Love,” where he sounds too casual.
Last, but hardly least, is the instrumental work of the Fly-Rite Boys. Drummer Bobby Trimble and bassist Wally Hersom make it swing effortlessly; Ashley Kingman is all light-footed nimbleness and darting quickness on lead guitar, and Lee Jeffriess, on pedal steel guitar, is so wonderfully idiosyncratic and so idiosyncratically wonderful that he makes you want to slap your thigh and shake your head at the crazy but perfectly fitting shapes he dabs onto songs.
The players participate fully in the music’s gaiety and humor. In “What’s It to Ya?” Williams tries to shoo away an overly talkative and inquisitive barfly: “Now if you don’t stop your buggin’ / I might have to start a-sluggin.” And there’s Jeffriess, with the most uncanny imitation of a buzzing fly that hands on steel strings can produce. Jeffriess and Kingman, transplanted Englishmen who joined in ’93-94, are a telepathic duo. In “If I Knew Now (What I Knew Then),” their tag-team work is like a conversational aside in a stage comedy, commenting humorously on the hangdog lot of the song’s woebegone narrator.
His hard-touring band might be feelin’ kinda lucky, but its excellence is purely a matter of skill. That, and a perfect lightness of spirit for the kind of music it plays.
* Big Sandy and his Fly-Rite Boys and Russell Scott and his Red Hots play Saturday at the Foothill, 1922 Cherry Ave., Signal Hill. 9 p.m. $10. (562) 494-5196.
Ratings range from * (poor) to **** (excellent), with three stars denoting a solid recommendation.